2007 Year in Review: Television

South of Nowhere and Degrassi: Teen Drama

In contrast to the second season of The N’s South of Nowhere, in which Spencer (Gabrielle Christian) and Ashley’s (Mandy Musgrave) relationship was largely devoid of physical affection, the third season showed a marked increase in the amount of same-sex physical affection that aired. This positive development finally placed their same-sex relationship on a par with the heterosexual ones of South of Nowhere.

In addition, although Spencer and Ashley’s relationship faltered during the third season episodes that aired in 2007, Spencer did not falter in her identity as a gay teen. She even dated another girl, Carmen, and went to Gay Pride with her family. The last episode of the first half of Season 3 showed Spencer going to visit Ashley and strongly implied that the two girls were renewing their relationship.

Although the Spencer/Ashley story line is still in progress, South of Nowhere‘s producers appear to be committed to their romantic arc, a promising sign for the second half of Season 3, which is scheduled to begin in April 2008. The same cannot be said for Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation, which also airs on The N in the United States.

During Degrassi‘s sixth season this year, a complex and mostly positive relationship developed between Alex (Deanna Casaluce) and Paige (Lauren Collins), incorporating issues of class differences in addition to typical teenage angst. But at the end of the season, the pair abruptly split up — and did so by behaving quite out of character.

The end of their relationship was not entirely unexpected, due to Casaluce’s decision to leave the show, but the manner in which their relationship ended appeared to toss aside years of character development — something that has happened on other shows with lesbian characters, from The O.C. to All My Children.

When so few lesbian couples are shown on television, it is even more important that their relationships end — if they do end — on a more positive, or at least understandable, note. Otherwise, these kinds of abrupt, confusing endings simply reinforce the idea that lesbian relationships are doomed.

Nip/Tuck: Sex and Violence

FX’s buzzed-about drama, created by out writer-producer Ryan Murphy, has included lesbians since its first season. But this year during the show’s fifth season, lesbian characters have finally been given equal footing with the men — at last they get to have sex.

Julia (Joely Richardson), the ex-wife of Dr. Sean MacNamara and the on-again, off-again love interest for Dr. Christian Troy, revealed at the beginning of this season that she had fallen in love with a woman, Olivia, played by out actress Portia de Rossi. The two are portrayed on the series in intimate situations, and are often shown being physically affectionate with one another.

In the first five episodes in which Olivia appears, she presents a strong, proud identity as an out lesbian. When Julia expresses discomfort with public displays of affection and uncertainty about whether she can handle being out, Olivia both understands and encourages her, telling her that “it takes a strong individual to be gay in this world,” and praising her for being strong.

Their story line takes a controversial turn when they are mugged and robbed in Episode 5.7, “Dr. Joshua Lee,” and are forced at gunpoint to drive into a rural area. While Olivia breaks down into tears and cannot stop whimpering, Julia — who has been the publicly weaker one so far — becomes the stronger, more forceful one.

Their abductor tells them to stop their car in a remote location, and when they get out of the car, Olivia is so upset that he tells Julia to “comfort her” and “hug her.” Seeing the two women embracing, he then commands Julia to kiss Olivia and orders them to undress and have sex. But when Julia refuses to obey and he threatens to kill them, she screams angrily, “Then just do it already!” Nonplussed, he tells them to turn around, but instead of shooting them, he drives away and leaves them alone in the woods.

The entire scene, as played out in the hyper-real world of Nip/Tuck, is a magnification of the straight male gaze. In an earlier episode, “Damien Sands,” in which a reality show called Plastic Fantastic is shot based on Christian and Sean’s plastic surgery clinic, the show-within-a-show’s publicist gushes about how viewers love lesbians and their drama: “Three lesbians fighting over their turf is ratings gold.”

During the abduction, when Julia and Olivia are held at gunpoint by their male attacker, the symbolic nature of the attack is brutally clear. The male gaze, in this instance, is physically violent: He forces the two women to perform sexually as lesbians so that he can watch. This scene can be read as a searing indictment of the way that lesbians have been used on television (and in the media in general) as titillation for straight male viewers.

The scene could also be read as exploitative, but that does not take into account the show’s over-the-top manner of using physicality — particularly the bloody reality of plastic surgery — to punctuate story lines about inner lives. How the show deals with the aftermath of the attack remains to be seen in 2008, but so far, Nip/Tuck has turned lesbian exploitation on its head this year.